TDE’s Patience With Their Artists Has Fostered An Era-Defining Catalog

Getty Image

Schoolboy Q’s Crash Talk album has finally struck a streaming service near you. The long-awaited third album from the Los Angeles MC was originally supposed to be released last year, but the shocking death of Q’s close friend Mac Miller understandably delayed the process. During a concert last September, Schoolboy Q told attendees that, “with my n—a gone right now, I just don’t feel right putting out an album,” he said. “As y’all can tell, I’m not my real self right now. I shouldn’t even be here, right now.”

He also told the crowd that “I’m just not ready to walk in the radio station and the first thing they ask me is ‘So Mac Miller…’ I’m not ready to deal with the questions they have. So right now I’m not ready to put nothing out right now.” For most gold-selling artists, the prospect of halting an album that’s already two years in the making would cause an issue with their label, no matter the circumstances behind the delay. The most manipulative PR machines would even look at his relationship with Mac as a ploy to guarantee an abundant press cycle. But luckily for Q, Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Jay Rock, and the rest of the ever-growing TDE movement, label founder Top Dawg, President Punch, and the rest of the team doesn’t bang like that.

It can be difficult to balance the demands of industry with the delicate, maddening process of artistry, but the LA-based label does it as well as anyone in rap. The patience they maintain with their artists has resulted in thoughtful, thematically rich work like SZA’s CTRL album, Q’s 2016 Blankface LP, and Kendrick Lamar’s entire oeuvre. While the rap world’s other behemoth collective Quality Control releases a deluge of music, TDE flips that strategy by giving their artists years to refine their work, knowing that high quality will foster a devoted fanbase. TDE represents one spectrum of the long-discussed music rollout debate: you can stay in fans’ face with bangers, or you can come around when you’re ready with music that will stay in fans’ hearts.

Schoolboy Q’s album could be fit to be a 2019 favorite like SZA’s CTRL was in 2017. The singer-songwriter’s bold debut was a result of grappling with anxiety, and self-doubt for over five years, and almost quitting music altogether. SZA’s worries were things that have torpedoed lesser artists careers or resulted in music that wasn’t true to their creative potential. Drake told the LA Times that his 2010 Thank Me Later debut was “rushed,” and that he “knew what he was capable of with a little more time.” He said his second album, 2011’s Take Care was the exact “album he wanted.” SZA obviously wasn’t in the stratosphere of Drake in terms of anticipation for her debut album, but she went through a similar reckoning of trying to figure out what album she wanted to release, or if she even wanted to release music at all.

Luckily, TDE worked with her through her process — to an extent. She admitted in July 2017 that someone at the label eventually took her hard drive and sequenced the Grammy-nominated album from the “150-200” songs on the drive, but by that point, she admitted that she was lost on what tunes she would have placed on the album anyway. Their move was for the best. It’s a similar story to what late manager Chris Lighty said about A Tribe Called Quest’s iconic The Low End Theory album on their Beats, Rhymes, And Life documentary. He said that “sometimes your creativity becomes a block” before admitting that he physically took the album’s masters from Q-Tip, lest he might still be refining the exceptionally layered album to this day.

It doesn’t seem like the conception of Kendrick Lamar’s albums have incurred such force, but they still reflect an admirable patience. Kendrick’s top-selling DAMN. is the first rap album to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, and TDE has to applaud themselves for giving Kendrick the space to release it in his time. He’s one of the most popular artists in the music industry with a fanbase that would patronize anything he released in droves. Some label executives may feel compelled to release as much as possible with his name on it. But if he felt pressure to strike while the iron was hot with annual music, who knows if albums like DAMN. would reflect the attention to detail like being able to play it backward or forward.

TDE has been similarly patient with Isaiah Rashad, who may have had the darkest journey on the label. He admitted that between 2014’s Cilvia Demo and 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, he was dealing with Xanax addiction and alcoholism, was almost dropped from the label three times due to “f*cking up,” and eventually got “sent home” by Top Dawg to get himself clean. He’s apparently doing better after rehab, and is set to drop a new project sometime soon. Rashad is lucky because a lot of labels would have sent an artist on the brink of self-destruction home for good or placed them on the shelf.

Many rap crews have stretched the bounds of truth by likening themselves a family, but TDE, for now, is one of the few movements that appears to place a deeper appreciation in the well-being of their artists than the industry norm. They believed in their Black Hippy core of Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q when they were all unknown aspirants, and helped them develop their careers to the lofty plateaus they’re on today. They took a chance on SZA, and five years later, it paid off with a Grammy-nominated album from the burgeoning superstar. Every new addition to their team reflects a careful curation, as Top Dawg and Punch know what they’re willing to offer artists and want to make sure they deserve it. TDE signees like Reason can’t just be talented. They must also be willing to work, and now, wait their turn on a roster with several top-priority caliber stars any given year. Sometimes it’ll take patience, but when your label hierarchy is patient with you, reciprocating can result in classic art.